The Sources of Schoenberg's "Aesthetic Theology"
[A version of this article originally
appeared in Nineteenth-Century Music 19/3 (Spring 1996): 252-62.]
In 1941 Arnold Schoenberg presented a lecture at the University of
California at Los Angeles entitiled "Composition With
Twelve Tones"--a lecture which has, in the fifty years since,
become quite well known and is often thought of as Schoenberg's definitive
statement (in prose anyway) on his twelve-tone method of musical
Discussion of that lecture in American musical scholarship, especially
among analysts and theorists, has tended to focus almost exclusively on
the many technical "nuts-and-bolts" descriptions provided by
Schoenberg. An article from 1988 by Fred Lerdahl, for example, takes
Schoenberg's account of his twelve-tone method in that lecture as a point
of departure for discussion of something Lerdahl calls the "cognitive
opacity of serialism."
While Martha Hyde finds this same technical account by Schoenberg to be
"incomplete and cryptic by design," she nevertheless builds upon
it in forwarding her own interpretation of Schoenberg's "twelve-tone
I will here side-step the question of whether or not Schoenberg actually
characterizes his twelve-tone manipulations accurately or fully in his
lecture, and assert only that whatever position a scholar may take with
regard to Schoenberg's description of his twelve-tone method, the
supporting argument is likely to hinge on issues of twelve-tone technical
But it is worthwhile to recall how Schoenberg opens this twelve-tone
understand the very nature of creation one must acknowledge that there was
no light before the Lord said: "Let there be Light." And since
there was not yet light, the Lord's omniscience embraced a vision of it
which only His omnipotence could call forth.
poor human beings, when we refer to one of the better minds among us as
creator, should never forget what a creator is in reality.
creator has a vision of something which has not existed before this
a creator has the power to bring his vision to life, the power to realize
Later in the lecture, Schoenberg refers to the
now well-known secret connection between contrasting themes in the Chamber
Symphony, op. 9, as a gift from the Supreme Commander. Immediately after
this follows the discussion of the unitary perception of musical time and
space, an idea that Schoenberg describes in terms of the mystical theology
of Emanuel Swedenborg.
The kind of interlacing of technical analysis with philosophical
discussion that occurs in this lecture is not unusual in Schoenberg's
writing generally, and one can find such discussions all across his
literary work. It seems clear that for Schoenberg real music--music that
he thought was truly great--was concerned with more than projecting
musical structures. Music must somehow cut to the heart of things; in
short, music is charged with the responsibility of communicating the
Truth. But what that Truth is, and how music might put it across, are
issues that are far less clear in Schoenberg's writings. Certainly musical
structure is a crucial element in this musical world view; but how might
musical structure serve the purposes of communicating the composer's
vision? Is the structure the result of a vision that is strictly musical,
or does it function more like a musical means to the expression of
something that is ultimately of a spiritual or religious nature?
In this article, I will explore and discuss these aesthetic and
philosophical issues as they arise in Schoenberg's writings. I will begin
by discussing Carl Dahlhaus's notion of Schoenberg's "aesthetic
theology." Working from Dahlhaus's interpretation, I will then
present a somewhat different, and I believe complementary, interpretation
of the aesthetic theology--one that relies heavily on reading Schoenberg
within the intellectual and cultural milieu
of early twentieth-century Vienna.
In his 1984 essay, "Schönbergs äesthetische
Theologie," Carl Dahlhaus
discusses Schoenberg's tendency to cast many of his aesthetic ideas in
religious terms. Dahlhaus discusses the Schoenberg remarks quoted above, as
well as many others drawn from a number of essays, from early to late.
Dahlhaus makes special note of the fact that Schoenberg, in his
discussion of the thematic relationship in op. 9, combines a theological
category like "miracle," with a psychoanalytical one like
"unconscious." This brings Dahlhaus around to two key points:
first, Schoenberg tends to value thematic relationships that reside
beneath the surface of a work and to appreciate these all the more for
their "hidden" quality; and second, a process of
"secularization" is apparent in Schoenberg's aesthetics whereby
concepts that once belonged exclusively to theology have been appropriated
for use in discussions of art.
Dahlhaus interprets Schoenberg's aesthetics of music as being
basically an aesthetics of instrumental
music, and this he believes is traced easily to the influence of
Schopenhauer's aesthetics of absolute music, an aesthetics that through
the influence of Wagner and the early Nietzsche had become common
intellectual property in Germany and Austria by 1900.
But Dahlhaus also attempts to make Schoenberg's remarks more
comprehensible by tracing his ideas back to Ludwig Tieck's Phantasien
über die Kunst of 1799. For Dahlhaus, the key word used by Schoenberg
in the divine creation reference cited a moment ago is "vision";
this would seem to indicate that the artist, acting in imitation of the
divine model, creates in a work of art a world unto itself: the work of
art does not imitate the natural world, but rather creates an alternate
one. The notion of divine creation is thus secularized by making the
artist into a creator of a world of his or her own. Dahlhaus is able to
trace this idea from the work in Renaissance poetics of Julius Caesar
Scaliger, who as early as 1561 proposed that the poet does not imitate the
world around us as Aristotle maintained, but rather creates another world.
This idea then picks up philosophical support through Leibniz's notion of
"possible worlds," becoming an important aesthetic approach in
the work of eighteenth-century writer Johann Jakob Breitinger, author of
the Critische Dichtkunst of
1740. According to Dahlhaus, the idea that a piece of instrumental music
creates its own musical world is put forward by Tieck, is picked up by
Schopenhauer, and makes its way to Schoenberg through Schopenhauer's
Dahlhaus takes up another angle of the transformation of categories
from theology into art by considering Schoenberg's
break with tonality in 1907 and his subsequent adoption of the
twelve-tone method in the early 1920s. For Dahlhaus, no substantial
historical or music-technical argument can be successfully advanced for
He ends up concluding that Schoenberg, in the role of prophet and moral
leader, simply decides to turn
away from tonality, and later, decides
to adopt the order of the twelve-tone method. In short, Dahlhaus seems to
suggest that Schoenberg, sitting in judgement of himself and his
contemporaries, simply comes to pronounce "enough of this, now here
is the way."
To conclude his essay, Dahlhaus works through one more theological-aesthetic
transformation in Schoenberg's writing on Classical and Romantic works. In
discussing and analyzing earlier music, Schoenberg appears to be
unconcerned with issues of historical authenticity or questions of the
possibility of understanding the past as it really was. Instead,
Schoenberg's working premise seems to be that if one simply works at
understanding the music on its own terms, then the music will eventually
yield up its meaning. Dahlhaus sees a similarity here to a fundamental
principle of Torah exegesis in Jewish mysticism of the Middle Ages and
early Modern Age. This mystical exegesis of revelation assumes that a text
will have various meanings to various interpreters down through the ages
and that this does not necessarily lead to contradiction. There exists,
therefore, the possibility that meaning can be updated in various
For Dahlhaus, a similar attitude on Schoenberg's part accounts for how
Schoenberg can view earlier music as addressing and informing his present
concerns: the music is somehow charged with a kind of energy that must be
understood in the terms of the interpreter. Thus, a musical text becomes
similar to a sacred text, and a fundamental attitude in the interpretation
of scripture becomes a basic premise in musical analysis.
Dahlhaus's discussion of Schoenberg's aesthetic theology can be
reduced down to three general statements: 1) by the time Schoenberg came
into contact with many of the ideas that he adopted in his thinking, they
already had a history of secularization that continued in the art religion
of the nineteenth century; 2) Schoenberg positioned himself in the role of
prophet, changing the course of twentieth-century music by proclamation;
and 3) that the texts in this aesthetic theology are musical works from
the Western art-music tradition that somehow contain an inextinguishable
energy that connects across the ages in the language of the interpreter.
Much as one may value Dahlhaus's essay, however, it must be
acknowledged that it has some problems. Dahlhaus convincingly situates
certain of Schoenberg's aesthetic attitudes within a variety historical
contexts, but he tells us very little about how the traditions he
identifies might be situated within the fin-de-siècle
Viennese culture in which Schoenberg came to intellectual maturity. While
one can agree generally with many of Dahlhaus's observations, there are
other--and I will argue better-- solutions to the philosophical-aesthetic
questions with which Dahlhaus grapples in his essay. In the following
discussions I would like to suggest an alternate reading of Schoenberg's
aesthetic theology--one that I believe nonetheless builds upon and
complements Dahlhaus's interpretation.
The key to interpreting Schoenberg's aesthetic
theology is his notion of the musikalische
Gedanke. While this notion holds a central position within
Schoenberg's thought world, he had tremendous difficulty bringing it to
verbal expression. Two kinds of problem arise in Schoenberg's writing on
the Gedanke: first, he sometimes uses different terms when he seems to
have a single concept in mind; and second, he sometimes uses the same term
to indicate different concepts. Thus, any one-to-one comparison of various
remarks about the Gedanke are
likely to lead, if not to contradiction, then at best to ambiguity.
One way to resolve this difficulty and retrieve Schoenberg's meaning is to
read each remark in its own intellectual and cultural context; in many
instances Schoenberg addresses aesthetic, philosophical, and
music-technical issues that were important in his intellectual and
cultural environment of the time. If in each instance we mark Schoenberg's
position with regard to those issues, it is possible to see him
continually returning to a particular point of view, and though the terms
may change from instance to instance, his positions may be seen, in
relation to the general intellectual context, as relatively consistent, or
at least less ambiguous or contradictory. This approach, then, tends to
read Schoenberg's remarks not as parts of some systematic theory,
philosophy, or aesthetics, but rather as individual commentaries
on musical, philosophical ,and aesthetic issues.
Elsewhere I have outlined a position on the influence of occult
sources on Schoenberg's musikalische
To summarize briefly, I maintain that Schoenberg's notion of the
musikalische Gedanke is
ultimately a mystical one. Schoenberg could never bring the Gedanke
to precise verbal formulation because the Gedanke
is a product of intuitive contemplation, and as such is at root the result
of non-verbal and super-rational perception. As early as 1912 in his essay
"The Relationship to the Text," Schoenberg can be found
extolling the virtues of intuitive and irrational, or above-rational
We may recall that this essay appeared in Kandinsky and Marc's Blaue
Reiter Almanac, and that Kandinsky's interest in the occult at around
that time, and especially in Rudolf Steiner's Goethe writings and
lectures, has been well documented.
Under the influence of Swedenborg's mysticism, which Schoenberg got
from Balzac's philosophical novels like Séraphita,
Louis Lambert and others, and
very likely under the influence of Rudolf Steiner's interpretation of
Goethe's scientific writings, which could have reached him any number of
ways in early twentieth-century Vienna, Schoenberg became fascinated with
the possibility of music's ability to provide a glimpse into some higher
spiritual realm. For Schoenberg, the musikalische
Gedanke resides in a realm where time and space are unified; the
composer, once granted a glimpse of this spiritual phenomenon, proceeds to
compose the musical work. The musical artwork, of course, must
reside in, or at least utilize, the physical realm; but because
this vision is of something essentially non-physical, the
composition of an artwork becomes the process of unfolding something in
time and space that is fundamentally atemporal and nonspatial. Or as
Schoenberg describes it in the same lecture quoted above:
it is one thing to envision in a creative instant of inspiration and it is
another thing to materialize one's vision by painstakingly connecting
details until they fuse into a kind of organism.
suppose it becomes an organism, a homunculus or a robot, and possesses
some of the spontaneity of a vision; it remains yet another thing to
organize this form so that it becomes a comprehensible message "to
whom it may concern."
Compare as well Schoenberg's discussion of the divine creation and
the vision of the creator with the following remarks about the musikalische Gedanke:
myself consider the totality of a piece as the idea:
the idea which its creator wanted to present.
Here, as in other places in Schoenberg's
writing, it appears that vision and idea are identical. If the use the
term "vision" creates a theological context, in Dahlhaus's
terms, then it may turn out that the theology is more like Theosophy.
But if one accepts the notion that Schoenberg's concept of the musikalische Gedanke was influenced by the mystical world views of
Swedenborg and Steiner, then the responsibility still remains to square
such occult influences with Schoenberg's acknowledged and well-documented
admiration for Schopenhauer. In fact, Schoenberg provides a list of people
he considers to be great men in his essay on Franz Liszt of 1911; this
list includes Plato, Christ, Kant, Swedenborg, Schopenhauer, and Balzac.
Perhaps we should add Goethe to this list, for as Severine Neff has
demonstrated, Goethe's science played a key role in Schoenberg's
formulation of his own theories about music.
This list, then, would seem to divide up into two groups, with Swedenborg,
Balzac, and Steiner on the occult side, and Plato, Kant, and Schopenhauer
on the side of legitimate philosophy. Goethe may be seen as occupying the
middle ground between these two camps. Though it is difficult to decide
how Christ could be placed in such a hypothetical continuum, his very
inclusion on Schoenberg's list already signals the high regard he holds
for the others, and perhaps is an indicator of the high value Schoenberg
places in his perception of spiritual integrity in each figure he
designates as great. But the question still lingers: What do these figures
have in common for Schoenberg?
Let us address that question by turning to an
anecdote of Goethe's that captures the crucial issue in a nutshell. It is
the well-known conversation of 1794 between Goethe and Schiller concerning
Goethe's Urpflanze; Goethe
explained to him with great vivacity the Metamorphosis of Plants and, with
a few characteristic strokes of the pen, conjured up before his eyes a
symbolical plant. He listened, and looked at it all with great interest
and intelligence; but when I had ended, he shook his head saying: This
has nothing to do with experience, it is an idea
[Idee]. I raised my eyebrows,
somewhat annoyed. For he had put his finger on precisely the point which
separated us. His argument from Anmut
und Würde came to my mind; the old anger began to stir, but I
constrained myself and replied: Well so much the better; it means that I
have ideas without knowing it, and can even see
them with my eyes.
The issue here is an epistemological one:
Goethe believes that he can see the idea, for him it really exists
"out there"; for Schiller, the influence of Kant's
transcendental idealism leads him to conclude that Goethe has projected
his idea onto his experience, the idea resides in the mind of the
perceiver and the "thing-in-itself" remains unknowable.
But it is around this very question of the possibility of
perceiving the "thing-in-itself" that Schoenberg and his cast of
great men assemble. Let us consider the theological writings of Emanuel
Swedenborg. Swedenborg contended that there exist other worlds than the
physical one that we all know. These worlds are finer than the physical
one and exist behind it or, one might say, between its atoms. Spirits
reside in these finer worlds, or heavens, and Swedenborg refers to these
entities as angels. These angels are the souls of the departed, who have
now passed on to a higher existence. Through a kind of spiritual vision,
Swedenborg claimed to be able to enter this finer realm and engage in
discussion with these angels, and it was these discussions that he claimed
provided him with his spiritual knowledge. Swedenborg also believed that
he had been granted this gift of seeing by God in order that he might
bring a new and fuller interpretation of the Bible to mankind.
The literary critic Anna Balakian contends that Swedenborg's
doctrine of correspondences exercised considerable influence on nineteenth-century
literature, and especially upon the symbolist poets.
But Swedenborg's ideas most
likely came to Schoenberg indirectly through Honoré de Balzac's
philosophical novels; as he admits in the twelve-tone lecture, his unitary
perception of musical time and space is indebted to Balzac's portrayal of
Swedenborg's ideas in Séraphita.
As the art historian Dore Ashton has shown, Schoenberg was no exception in
his fascination with Swedenborgian themes in Balzac's novels; she notes
the influence of Balzac's philosophical stories on such figures as Cézanne,
Rilke, and Picasso. What is different about
Schoenberg, however, is his interest in the actual possibility of viewing
the higher realms that Swedenborg describes. The idea of catching a
glimpse of these higher realms, and the overwhelming effect such a
perception can have on a physical being, are the central themes in both Séraphita and Louis Lambert,
novels that Schoenberg held in very high esteem.
Swedenborg's claim that he could see into the higher realms drew
the attention of Immanuel Kant. Though it is not clear exactly how
seriously Kant took Swedenborg's ideas when he first encountered them, he
ultimately came down against Swedenborg and his claims to super-sensory
perception. Kant's refutuation of Swedenborg can be found in his Dreams
of a Spirit-Seer. Since this essay was
written in 1766, thus well before the important Critique of Pure Reason of 1781, followers of Swedenborg have
sometimes made a surprising claim: Kant's understanding of time and space
as a priori, they claim, is
indebted to Swedenborg's assertion that time and space do not exist in the
higher realms. While Kant believes that we
can never know the world of the thing-in-itself, Swedenborg believes we
can, or at least that he can.
For some followers of Swedenborg, the fact that both Kant's
thing-in-itself and Swedenborg's heaven are atemporal and non-spatial in
any conventional sense may be considered proof of Kant's intellectual
For purposes of the present discussion it is not really important
whether or not this assertion about Kant's thought can be proved false; it
is enough that we can see Kant and Swedenborg taking positions about the
possibility of viewing some other world than the most apparent one. In
fact, though he is an important figure in Schoenberg's intellectual
pantheon, Kant is the only one who denies the possibility of seeing into
the beyond. And this denial also accounts for the disagreement between
Schiller and Goethe that arises in the story quoted above. In fact, as
Walter Kaufmann has pointed out, much early nineteenth-century German
philosophy can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the views of Kant and
Goethe; both Hegel and Schopenhauer
considered themselves to be the "philosophers of the Goethean world
view," and both were fundamentally indebted to Kantian philosophy.
Both Hegel and Schopenhauer had personal and relatively close contact with
Goethe, with discussions centering on Goethe's neglected but important Farbenlehre.
But Hegel does not figure
into Schoenberg's consideration of the Gedanke
at all, and it will take Schopenhauer's revision of Kant's epistemology to
transform Kant's denial into something that addresses Schoenberg's
While Hegel and Schopenhauer, inspired by Goethe's notion of the Urphänomen,
each attempted to discover ways of coming to know the thing-in-itself,
neither of these philosophers can be accused of passing beyond the bounds
of what might be thought of as "legitimate" philosophy. Rudolf Steiner, on the other hand, offers an interpretation
of Goethean science that ultimately leads into the world of the occult. In
the period between 1884 and 1897, Steiner edited Goethe's scientific
writings for two separate Goethe editions, one of which was the
prestigious Weimar edition. Steiner wrote extensive commentaries for the
other edition and, in addition, wrote three monographs on Goethe's science
and world-view. In the years before 1900, Steiner was viewed as a leading
authority on Goethe's scientific writings.
Steiner interpreted Goethe as believing that the Urphänomen,
the Urtier and the Urpflanze actually exist in the object itself. The Goethe-Schiller
story is therefore a crucial point of reference for Steiner. Steiner
offers a complicated epistomological argument for how we can know the
thing-in-itself and since space does not permit a detailed unfolding of
that argument, I will summarize the main points. Steiner believes that the
physical object and its idea exist in a unified state "out
there"; it is we who, through a weakness in out perceptual apparatus,
separate the two aspects from one another in the act of perceiving. We see
only the physically perceptible aspect of the object and the idea is lost
in the process. But our minds are the microcosm of the larger physical
universe in the sense that we can see inside a reflection of what really
exists outside. There is one outside world and one inside world; one
physical universe and one unified thought world. The correspondence
between these two worlds allows us to recover the idea of an object that
is lost in sense perception. Every human has access to the same
thought world; there are not many thought worlds but a single one into
which we all find our way. For Steiner then, we must, through something he
terms "active thinking," work to recreate the idea within
ourselves and view it together with the sensory perception. But, because
of the nature of the unified thought world, when we actually recombine the
idea and the object, we view them as they really are in the outside world. Thus, for the pre-1900
Rudolf Steiner, we do have access to the thing-in-itself. When Steiner
turned to Theosophy after 1900, and later when he established his own
Anthroposophical Society in 1913, he maintained that one can see into
other worlds beyond the coarse physical one; one can learn to view the
astral and causal planes of existence. Despite this pronounced turn to an
occult world-view, Steiner always maintained that these later views were
founded on his understanding of Goethean science. It should also be
pointed out that it was the occult Steiner that held a deep fascination
for Kandinsky, and it was probably also the occult Steiner that Schoenberg
came to know.
With this discussion of Steiner I have added another of
Schoenberg's great men, Goethe, to the voices on the question of viewing
the thing-in-itself. There is a passage in one of Schoenberg's brief
essays on Josef Matthias Hauer from 1923 that suggests that Schoenberg may
have known Steiner's epistomological argument. Schoenberg is discussing
Hauer's aesthetic position that the twelve-tone system is in fact a
universe of its own that operates according to eternal cosmic principles.
In response to that position Schoenberg writes:
Hauer looks for laws. Good. But he looks for them where he will not
find them. I say that we are obviously as nature around us is, as the
cosmos is. So that is also how our music is. But then our music must also
be as we are (if two magnitudes both equal a third . . .). But then from
our nature alone I can deduce how our music is (bolder men than I would
say, "how the cosmos is!").
clearly believes, in this passage at least, that we are as the cosmos is,
and that our music is as we and the cosmos are. Now such an idea could
easily be descended from Leibniz, but this use of the microcosm/macrocosm
argument sheds some light on Schoenberg's use of the term
"unconscious" in his discussion of viewing the idea.
Schoenberg's meaning can be distinguished from the use of that term in
psychoanalysis generally by the fact that Schoenberg's unconscious does
not so much consist of past experiences and innate drives as much as it
provides a vision of reality reflected upon the inner consciousness. The
composer, Schoenberg might be understood to say, perceives the vision on
the reflective screen of his or her own inner consciousness.
But whatever Schoenberg's epistomology might be--and I hasten to
remind the reader that I do not view Schoenberg's thought as constituting
a systematic philosophy that would be required to address issues of
epistomology--it still is not clear how music fits into the question of
viewing the thing-in-itself; and this is where Schopenhauer enters the
picture. Schopenhauer believed that the Kantian thing-in-itself was
something he called the Will. The Will is a kind of omnipresent force that
manifests itself as physical reality. The Will knows no distinctions in
space or time, and is absolutely unified. It is only our perception of
things, our Representation, that creates separateness and diversity in the
world as we come to know it. Thus Schopenhauer builds his philosophical
system on the foundation laid by Kant's trancendental idealism.
Schopenhauer revises Kant's epistomology in many significant ways,
dispensing with the twelve categories and bringing all ways of knowing
down to something he calls the "fourfold root of the principle of
sufficient reason." In accounting for our ways
of picturing things to ourselves, Schopenhauer invokes Plato's theory of
forms (sometimes called Ideas). He claims, for example, that the arts
operate by recreating an object according to its ideal form, thus making
the artwork somehow truer to the real nature of an object than our raw
perception of it would be.
Music is different: music refers to no Platonic forms and offers a
direct window onto the Will itself. Schopenhauer speaks of music as being
an alternate reality created from the same Will, a reality that he claims
could even exist in the absence of our physical world. Adapting Leibniz's
claim about music, Schopenhauer describes it as the mind philosophising
without knowing it. If we are likely ever to catch a glimpse of the world
behind the physical, music is the only possible way to do it. Consider
Schopenhauer's characterization of the composer:
composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the
profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not
understand . . .
In the context that I have tried to outline around Schoenberg's
fascination with viewing the world beyond, it is obvious why
Schopenhauer's philosophy would hold a strong attraction for the composer.
It also becomes clear why Kant and Plato are included in the category of
great men while someone like Hegel is not. Schopenhauer designates Kant
and Plato as the two great philosophers before him; on the other hand,
Schopenhauer has nothing but scorn for Hegel. But, in contrast to Dahlhaus,
I am not contending that Schoenberg was interested in creating a separate
world unto itself in his music, but rather that his music was an attempt
to gain access to the higher realms that he believed existed beyond our
physical one. While Balzac's novel's may have awakened Schoenberg's
interest in the higher realms, it was Schopenhauer's philosophy that
convinced him that it was music that could gain him access to these finer
My interpretation of these various figures might be summarized by saying that the three principal sources of influence on Schoenberg could be seen as Schopenhauer, Goethe, and Swedenborg. Through Schopenhauer come Kant and Plato, Goethe is understood through Rudolf Steiner, and Swedenborg is transmitted through Balzac. This diverse and seemingly incongruous group is united by the problem of viewing the higher realms or the thing-in-itself. It should be pointed out that a more in-depth study of these figures would reveal a number of basic incompatibilities; but Schoenberg never did such an in-depth study of any of these figures except Schopenhauer, and it is perhaps sufficient for this study to note that these figures assemble around a shared philosophical concern that was clearly a concern of Schoenberg's.
now outlined a context around Schoenberg's musikalische
Gedanke, I would like to return to Dahlhaus's essay and suggest some
revisions to the basic points that Dahlhaus makes. First, Dahlhaus traces
a history of secularization that extends, for music at least, back to
Tieck's writing of 1799. While I do not dispute that such a line can be
drawn--though I would perhaps argue with Dahlhaus's interpretation of
Schopenhauer's aesthetics of absolute music--it is not clear how
Schoenberg might have come to these ideas except through his study of
Schopenhauer. I suggest that Schoenberg came not only to the ideas of
Schopenhauer, but that he also became aware of very similar ones in the
thinking of Swedenborg and Steiner. Schoenberg's interest in Balzac's
philosophical novels and the Swedenborgian ideas that arise in them is
well known; Steiner's interpretations of Goethe's science were also well
known within the well developed occult community in Vienna after 1900, and
Schoenberg could have come to be familiar with them any number of ways. If Schoenberg seems to
appropriate theological terms to discuss music, it may have less to do
with a transformation of vocabulary from theology into art than with the
fact that for people like Steiner and Swedenborg, viewing these higher
spiritual realms was religion.
Thus, Dahlhaus does not go far enough in tracing this transformation into
the early twentieth century. For Schoenberg, it is not so much that music becomes religion, as much it is that music participates in the
spiritual quest; for, ultimately, Schoenberg has his vision fixed on
something far more eternal than well-wrought cultural artifacts.
Dahlhaus also views Schoenberg as abandoning tonality by decree;
Schoenberg casts himself in the role of prophet. But it is entirely
possible that Schoenberg wanted, through music, to explore the
possibilities of unfolding the vision presented to him through intuition.
The vision is of something otherworldly; but references to tonality or to
traditional forms draw the mind back to culture, to the world of man. Thus
it is desirable to transport the listener to a sound world that seems to
be cut off from all references to everyday life: music must be reinvented
with every new piece. This interpretation has the advantage of
complementing Dahlhaus's interpretation as well as reinforcing the
spiritual aspect of Schoenberg's aesthetics. The turn to the twelve-tone
method comes at a time when Schoenberg feels that a musical context must
be established that allows for the projection of the musical idea over
long stretches of music without the support of a text. But, as he does in
his free atonal period, Schoenberg reinvents his twelve-tone method with
each new piece. The all-important musical idea is always set in a fresh
musical context in each new work. This is not the position of a prophet,
but rather that of a musician searching in each instance for a fresh angle
on his compositional materials.
Finally, I would suggest that the "inextinguishable
energy" posited by Dahlhaus is the musikalische
Gedanke itself. For, as Schoenberg states in his essay "New
Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea" of 1946, musical style may
pass with time, but "an idea can never perish." The task of unfolding the
idea in an ever-fresh musical context, and the task of recovering the idea
in an old style, are in effect following the same path in opposite
directions: composition leads from the idea into the physical realm of
real pitches and rhythms; analysis leads from the physical realm into the
spiritual realm of the idea itself.
For Schoenberg, then, music offers a path to a higher level of spiritual awareness; the object of contemplation in this heightened state of consciousness is the musikalische Gedanke. Though Schoenberg's notion of the Gedanke is unique to his thought, the concerns that he addresses in his writings are common to many other German and Austrian musicians and artists of the time. Josef Matthias Hauer's aesthetic and theoretical writings address many of the same issues as Schoenberg's writings. Kandinsky's writings have already been mentioned, and to them one might add the writings of the Swiss painter Johannes Itten, who was a founding instructor at the Bauhaus and with whom Hauer was in close contact. Thomas de Hartmann, composer of the music to Kandinsky's Der gelbe Klang and contributor to the Blaue Reiter Almanac, went on to write music for the circle around the spiritual leader G. I. Gurdjieff, and also composed music influenced by Ouspensky's philosophical account of the fourth dimension. One could even point to the Schenker student Victor Zuckerkandl and note many of the same concerns. All these figures are united by the belief that art can ultimately transport the human consciousness to another, higher level. While Schoenberg's solutions to these philosophical and aesthetic problems are certainly his own, the fact that he was concerned with such issues is not in the least exceptional. Thus Schoenberg's aesthetic theology must be seen as Schoenberg's contribution to a much broader discourse in early twentieth-century German and Austrian culture--a discourse that, to borrow a title from Kandinsky, was very much "concerning the spiritual in art."
Research for the present study was made possible in part by a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Music Program, Univerisity of Rochester, during the 1990-91 academic year. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1991 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Chicago, Illinois.
Arnold Schoenberg, "Composition With Twelve Tones" ,
in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, trans. Leo
Black, ed. Leonard Stein (Berkeley, 1984), pp. 214-44. This essay
originated in one that was given at Princeton University in 1933; see
Schoenberg, "Vortrag / 12TK / Princeton," trans. and ann.
Claudio Spies, Perspectives of
New Music 13/1 (1974): 58-136.
Fred Lerdahl, "The Cognitive Constraints on Compositional
Systems," Generative Processes in Music: The Psychology of Performance,
Improvisation, and Composition, ed. John A. Sloboda (Oxford,
1988), pp. 231-59.
. Martha Hyde, Schoenberg's Twelve-Tone Harmony: The Suite Op. 29 and the Compositional Sketches (Ann Arbor, 1982), p. 25.
Dahlhaus, "Schönbergs ästhetische Theologie," in Bericht über den 2. Kongress der internationalen Schönberg-Gesellschaft
1984 (Vienna, 1984); translated as "Schoenberg's Aesthetic
Theology," in Schoenberg
and the New Music, trans. Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton
(Cambridge, 1987), pp. 81-93.
Dahlhaus traces the history of absolute music in his Die Idee der absoluten Musik (Kassel, 1978);
translated as The Idea of
Absolute Music, trans. Roger Lustig (Chicago, 1989). His
discussion of Nietzsche's role in this history is dealt with at length
in his Zwischen Romantik und
Moderne: Vier Studien zur Musikgeschichte des späteren 19.
Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1974); translated as Between Romanticism and Modernism, trans. Mary Whittall (Cambridge,
1980). A thorough consideration of Schopenhauer's influence on Wagner
can be found in Bryan Magee, The
Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford, 1983).
On this point, Dahlhaus departs markedly from Adorno's position on
Schoenberg's development; see Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy
of New Music , trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley Blomster
(New York, 1973).
This position with regard to interpretation closely parallels the one
put forward by hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer; see
especially his important Truth
and Method , 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and
Donald G. Marshall (New York, 1989). James Hepokoski has explored the
Gadamerian influence in Dahlhaus's writing in his "The Dahlhaus
Project and Its Extra-Musicological Sources," This
Journal 14/3 (1989): 221-246.
The debate between the possibility of recovering the past as it
was (Schleirmacher, Dilthey, Betti) and historically impacted
interpretation (Heidegger, Gadamer) continues to be a central issue
within hermeneutic philosophy. See the introductions and selections
contained in The Hermeneutic
Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, ed. Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D.
Schrift (Albany, New York, 1990) and Transforming
the Hermeneutic Context: From Nietzsche to Nancy, ed. Ormiston and
Schrift (Albany, New York, 1990).
. For a discussion of the various ways in which Schoenberg used the terms Gedanke, Idee, and Einfall, see Charlotte M. Cross, "Three Levels of 'Idea' in Schoenberg's Thought and Writings," Current Musicology 30 (1980): 24‑36. See also the Concordance of Terms provided in Arnold Schoenberg, The Musical Idea and the Logic, Technique, and Art of Its Presentation, ed. and trans. Patricia Carpenter and Severine Neff (New York, 1995). While the publication of The Musical Idea will provide scholars with a more in-depth treatment of some of the key components in Schoenberg's thought, this unfinished manuscript is focussed primarily on the technical aspects that constitute the presentation of the musical idea; thus the more abstract and philosophical--and I will argue, mystical--aspects of the idea are barely expanded from writings we already have from the composer.
. John Covach, "Schoenberg and the Occult: Some Reflections on the 'Musical Idea,'" Theory and Practice 17 (1992): 103-118. The reader is referred to that article for more thorough considerations of the material summarized in the next several paragraphs.
See Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, eds., The
Blaue Reiter Almanac, new edition ed. Klaus Lankheit (New York,
1974); Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning
the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. H. Sadler (New York, 1977); and
Jelena Hahl‑Koch, Arnold
Schoenberg-Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures, and Documents,
trans. John Crawford (London, 1984). For a careful discussion of
Kandinsky's interest in the writing of Steiner and in Theosophy
generally, see Sixten Ringbom, The
Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the
Genesis of Abstract Painting, Acta Academiae Aboensis, Ser. A,
38/2 (Abo, 1970). Ringbom surveys the occult component in early
abstract painting in his "Art in the 'Epoch of the Great
Spiritual': Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract
Painting," Journal of the
Warpurg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966): 386-418; for a more
see Roger Lipsey, An Art of Our
Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (Boston, 1988).
Schoenberg, "Composition with Twelve Tones," in Style and Idea, p. 215.
Schoenberg, "New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea"
, in Style and Idea, p. 123.
Schoenberg, "Franz Liszt's Work and Being" , in Style
and Idea, p. 446.
Severine Neff, "Goethe and Schoenberg: Organicism and
Analysis," in Music Theory
and the Exploration of the Past, ed. Christopher Hatch and David
Bernstein (Chicago, 1993).
Erich Heller, " Goethe and the Idea of Scientific Truth," in
The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought
(New York, 1975), p. 7.
Summaries of Swedenborg's thought can be found in Sig Synnestvedt, The
Essential Swedenborg: Basic Religious Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg
(New York, 1970); and John Howard Spalding, An
Introduction to Swedenborg's Religious Thought (New York, 1956).
For a fuller treatment of Swedenborg's clairvoyance, see Wilson Van
Dusen, The Presence of Other
Worlds: The Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg (London, 1974) and The Natural Depth in Man (New York, 1972).
Anna Balakian, The Symbolist
Movement: A Critical Appraisal (New York, 1967), pp. 29-53.
. Dore Ashton, A Fable of Modern Art (Berkeley, 1991).
H. H. Stuckenschmidt (Arnold
Schoenberg: His Life and Work [London, 1977], pp. 234-35)
describes how taken Schoenberg was with Balzac's novels, and with Séraphita especially. A letter from Berg to Schoenberg, dated 21
December 1912, suggests that Schoenberg was very
fond of Louis Lambert as
well; see The Berg-Schoenberg
Correspondence: Selected Letters, ed. Julianne Brand, Christopher
Hailey, and Donald Harris (New York, 1987), pp. 134-36.
. Immanuel Kant, Dreams of a Spirit Seer, trans. and commentary by John Manolesco (New York, 1969).
. For early twentieth-century discussions of this issue, see Ernst Cassirer, Kant's Life and Thought , trans. James Haden (New Haven, 1981); and Paul Carus's 1902 commentary in Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Can Qualify as a Science (La Salle, Illinois, 1902).
. Walter Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel (New York, 1980).
Schopenhauer's engagement with Goethe's color theory may be found in
his Über das Sehen und die Farben of 1815. The relationship between the
young Schopenhauer and the much older Goethe is recounted in Rüdiger
Safranski, Schopenhauer and the
Wild Years of Philosophy, trans. Ewald Osers (Cambridge, Mass.,
1990), pp. 177-190. The Hegel-Goethe relationship is discussed by Karl
Löwith in his From Hegel to
Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought, trans.
David E. Green (New York, 1964), pp. 3-29. A useful volume devoted to
modern assessments of Goethe's science is Goethe
and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, ed. Frederick Amrine, Francis J.
Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of
Science, vol. 97 (Dordrecht, 1987).
While Hegel's philosophy played no role in Schoenberg's thinking about
the Gedanke, his notions about the dialectical forward progress of
history made their way--however tacitly--into almost every
justification Schoenberg ever offered for his turns to atonality and
the twelve-tone method.
Steiner's writing on Goethean science can be found in his The
Science of Knowing: Outline of an Epistomology Implicit in the
Goethean World View , trans. William Lindeman (Spring
Valley, New York, 1988); Goethe
as the Founder of a New Science of Aesthetics , trans. G.
Metaxa (London, 1922); and Goethe's
World View , trans. W. Lindeman (Spring Valley, New York,
1985). His commentaries for the Kürschner edition (1884-91) are
collected in Goethean Science,
trans. W. Lindeman (Spring Valley, New York, 1988). Steiner's
biography is recounted in The
Essential Steiner, ed. Robert A. McDermott (New York, 1984); and
in Steiner's own autobiography, The
Course of My Life , trans. Olin D. Wannamaker (New York,
This argument is especially central in Steiner's The
Science of Knowing.
Schoenberg, "Hauer's Theories" , in Style
and Idea, pp. 209-10.
See Arthur Schopenhauer, The
World as Will and Representation, 2 vols., trans. E. F. J. Payne
(New York, 1969). Music is discussed in detail in the third book of
vol. 1, bk. 3, par. 52 (pp. 255-67), and in vol. 2, chap. 39, "On
the Metaphysics of Music" (pp. 447-57). For a careful treatment
of Schopenhauer's philosophy, see Magee, The
Philosophy of Schopenhauer and Safranski, Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy.
Schopenhauer, The World as Will
and Representation, Vol. I, p. 260. Schoenberg comments to this
passage in his "The Relationship to the Text," in Style
and Idea, pp. 141-42.
Pamela White has explored Schoenberg's study of Schopenhauer's
philosophy in her Schoenberg and the God-Idea (Ann Arbor, 1985) and "Schopenhauer and Schoenberg," Journal
of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 8/1 (1984): 39-57.
For an account of the occult scene in Vienna as well as in Europe
generally at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of
the twentieth, see William J. McGrath, Dionysian
Art and Populist Politics in Austria (New Haven, 1974); James
Webb, The Occult Establishment
(La Salle, Illinois, 1985) and The Occult Underground (La Salle, Illinois, 1988).
Schoenberg, "New Music, Outmoded Music," in Style
and Idea, p. 123.
While I have opted for an interpretation of Schoenberg's mysticism
that situates with regard to trends in turn-of-the-century Vienna,
Alexander Ringer has interpreted Schoenberg's mysticism in terms of
the Jewish tradition. See
his Arnold Schoenberg: The
Composer as Jew (Oxford, 1990).
For a fuller treatment of Hauer's writing, see my "The Music and
Theories of Josef Matthias Hauer" (Ph.D. diss., University of
Michigan, 1990); and "The Quest of the Absolute:
Schoenberg, Hauer and the Twelve-Tone Idea," Black
Sacred Music, A Journal in Theomusicology 8/1 (1994): 157-177.
For discussion of the Hauer-Itten relationship, see Dieter Bogner,
"Schönberg-Hauer: Vom Chaos zum Ordnung," Parnass
Sonderheft 2 (1987): 48-55; and "Josef Matthias Hauers 'Zwölftonteppich:
Zur geistesgeschichtlichen Stellung des Komponisten," Morgen 5/17 (1981): 273-80.
For a careful account of the Gurdjieff circle and de Hartmann's role
in it, see James Webb, The
Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D.
Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston, 1987); see also Thomas and
Olga de Hartmann, Our Life with
Mr. Gurdjieff, rev. and expanded ed. (San Francisco, 1964).
. In his Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World ([Princeton, 1956], pp. 145-48), Zuckerkandl outlines his notion of the "third stage" upon which music occurs, and much of this discussion could be mistaken for Hauer's or Kandinsky's writing. Consider, as an example, the following passage: "Those who believe that music provides a source of knowledge of the inner world are certainly not wrong. But the deeper teaching of music concerns the nature not of 'psyche' but of 'cosmos.' The teachers of antiquity who spoke of the music of the spheres, of the cosmos as a musical order, knew this" (p. 147).